Department of Health & Community Services v JWB & SMB (“Marion’s case”) [1992] HCA 15

ON 6 May 1992, the High Court of Australia delivered Department of Health & Community Services v JWB & SMB (“Marion’s Case”) [1992] HCA 15; (1992) 175 CLR 218 (6 May 1992).

“Children – Intellectual disability – Sterilization – Power of parents to consent – Assault – Parens patriae jurisdiction of court – Criminal Code Act 1983 (N.T.), ss 1, 26, 181, 187 188.

Family Law (Cth) – Family Court – Jurisdiction – Welfare – Parens patriae – Intellectually disabled child – Sterilization – Power of Court to authorize operation – Effect of authorization on criminal law – Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), ss. 63, 64, 64E – Criminal Code Act 1983 (N.T.), ss 1, 26, 181, 187, 188.”

The court held that the parents of a 14 year old mentally retarded girl from the Northern Territory could not lawfully authorize a sterilization procedure on their child without an order of a court.

The court held that the Family Court of Australia has the jurisdiction  to authorize the carrying out of a sterilization procedure but could not approve consent being given to the parents unless the court authorizes the procedure.

Whilst parents or guardians may authorize or consent to the carrying out of a therapeutic treatment of their child, they have no such power regarding non-therapeutic treatment.

Sterilization of an intellectuallly disabled minor falls outside of the ordinary scope of parenal powers if the procedure is not obviously necessary.

Children have the right to personal integrity under domestic and international law. Procedures, such as sterilization, are “invasive, irreversible and major surgery”. It is up to the court, not the parents or guardians, to decide the appropriate circumstances that are in the best interests of the child.


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